This is part of a series that began here.
The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.
What the Verses Seem to Say
Peter’s vision seems to mean that animals previously classified as unclean are now to be considered clean. A voice from heaven said that what God has made clean, we can’t call common. And the voice spoke it three times just to be sure we didn’t miss it! It seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?
But there are at least three problems with this interpretation:
- God’s word from Genesis up to this point has been very clear about what animals count as food and which do not.
- Other dreams and visions throughout scripture use figurative elements to communicate their message.
- Peter and everyone else who heard the vision interpret it in a figurative way.
The First Problem: God’s Word
The first problem is that God very specifically laid out which animals He created for food and which He didn’t want us eating or even touching. And it wasn’t just in the Mosaic law. Way back at the time of the flood, there were clean and unclean animals. God commanded Noah to take seven pairs of all clean animals and one pair of the unclean.
God also clearly laid out his thoughts about those who eat unclean animals throughout the scriptures. In the last post about Mark 7, we looked at God’s very explicit words about those who eat unclean animals.
Peter knew the heart of God about this topic and was emphatic about his compliance when he said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”
The Second Problem: The Interpretation of Other Dreams and Visions
This section I’m reprinting with permission of a friend. He put it very succinctly.
Question 1: “Pharaoh had a dream about seven fat cows, followed by seven skinny cows. Was the dream really about cows?”
Answer 1: “Of course not! Scripture reveals just a few verses later that the dream was about seven years of plenty, followed by seven years of famine.”
Question 2: “Joseph had a dream about his brothers’ sheaves of wheat bowing to his own sheaf. Was the dream really about wheat?”
Answer 2: “No! Later on, we learn that this was a prophecy, foretelling of the event when his brothers would come to Egypt, not recognize him, and yet bow down to him.”
Question 3: “Nebuchadnezzar had a dream about a multi-metal statue. Was the dream really about a statue?”
Answer 3: “Not at all! It was about the different kingdoms that would arise, starting with Babylon. Daniel gives the interpretation right after the dream is revealed, just a few verses later!”
Question 4: “Peter had a dream about a sheet of unclean animals. He hears a voice say, ‘Arise, slay, and eat.’ Was his dream really about unclean animals now becoming acceptable as food?”
Answer 4: “Of course it was! Can’t you read? He says slay and eat! Duh! Of course all unclean meats can be eaten now! Never mind verse 28 where he says something about PEOPLE being unclean; that is completely unrelated. This dream doesn’t need to be interpreted, it should be taken literally.”
To recap, we clearly see dreams and visions throughout scripture using figurative elements to communicate their message. Their actual meanings are always given afterwards. Peter’s vision is no exception, which leads us to the last point.
The Third Problem: Peter’s Interpretation
Though the common interpretation of this passage is that the dietary laws have been done away, that’s not at all the conclusion of Peter or any of those who heard the vision.
In Acts 10:28, Peter says what he learned from the vision, and it had nothing to do with food. “God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” He sees that the vision was about people.
In Acts 11:10-12, when Peter is recounting the whole thing to the circumcised believers in Jerusalem, he says, “This happened three times, and all was drawn up again into heaven. And behold, at that very moment three men who had been sent to me from Caesarea stopped at the house where I was staying. The Spirit told me to have no hesitation about going with them.” Peter connects the three repetitions of the vision with the three Gentile men who came.
When those circumcised believers heard that, they “had no further objections and praised God, saying, ‘So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life.'” Everyone there understood that the vision was about the Gentiles.
Peter and the rest of the believers all understood the vision to be about people. Instead of continuing with the man-made laws that Jews used to stay separated from Gentiles, they were being instructed to embrace the Gentiles who had been cleansed by faith as fellow heirs of life. Reminds me of Ephesians 2:13-14, “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.”
Certainly, if someone had understood the vision to mean all of God’s previous food laws had been turned on their head, someone would have mentioned something about it. It would have been a big deal, and certainly there would have been record in the book of Acts or elsewhere in historical documents of some segment of the believing Jews who would have taken great issue with such an interpretation. But there are no such accounts because no one came to that conclusion. They understood that God wanted them to stop viewing Gentiles as unclean and to welcome them as brothers.
Peter’s vision did not challenge Mosaic law by changing the definition of food. The vision merely challenged the man-made notion that all Gentiles were unclean.